My response to Bert Olivier’s article Equality and intellectual emancipation in Thought Leader on 18 April 2017.

I am a teacher. I teach mathematics in the FET phase. Questions of the relation between knowledge and ignorance, and the pedagogic relationship between the student and the teacher, are of great interest to me. I am all in support of encouraging critical thought and its emancipatory effects. But I do find the argument presented in the post entitled “Equality and intellectual emancipation” to be problematic. I found it problematic on theoretical, ethical and practical grounds.

The argument for learning as self-discovery seems to be premised on a model of language acquisition that is problematic. First of all, no one really knows how language is acquired. The antecedent statement is itself problematic because the word ‘language’ has different meanings within different theoretical paradigms, which, in turn, affects whether or not we could reasonably theorise about it as something to be ‘acquired’. What rigorous theorists do know is that the ability to think and to use a language of expression is a natural phenomenon. It occurs as an unavoidable consequence of socialisation. It is also fairly well established that there is a window period during early childhood, during which the cognitive structures necessary for language ‘acquisition’ must develop, failing which, ‘language’ will be much harder to ‘acquire’ at a later stage.

In his theory of language, world renowned linguist, Noam Chomsky, postulates that the faculty for language acquisition is a genetic predisposition, ‘hard-wired’ into the human brain. This implies that the first principle concerning language is not acquisition via the repetition of particular verbal signs, but rather the development; that is, the activation of the language faculty through environmental exposure, that facilities the development of language. This is another way of stating that thought precedes its externalisation. What we commonly refer to when we speak of ‘learning a language’ is merely the externalisation of what Noam Chomsky refers to as language in his theory of biolinguistics. Within a biolinguistic paradigm, language does not refer to the ability to speak English, Chinese, isiXhosa, or any other language of a particular group of people. In Chomskian theory, language is a computational faculty of the brain; it is innate to all humans, a biological ability, which Chomsky names I-language (“I” for internal), and what we learn when we ‘learn a language’ is merely the means by which to externalise the internal meaning-making already going on inside our minds prior to picking up the verbal signs and motor skills required to express the meanings already produced in I-language. The notion that a “sufficient amount of intelligence” is required to learn a language is no more relevant here than the intelligence needed to learn how to walk, to use our eyes, or the intelligence required for any other biological system to work naturally. We have the language faculty merely because we are human and not because certain humans have a minimum level of intelligence required for its acquisition.

Moreover, we consider someone to have ‘learned a language’ only when they are able to construct complex sentences autonomously and with relevance to a given situation. This is an important point because the ability to do that is not taught; parents know that a child will spontaneously construct sentences which are not a mere mimic of words or sentences repeated in the environment. This ability to form novel, complex sentences, appropriate to the situation, is the result of I-language, an innate ability for creative computation, without which the infant’s grasp of language would be limited to the verbal signifiers repeated in its environment.

The first problem then, if, for the sake of the argument, ‘language acquisition’, is postulated as the model for an emancipatory pedagogy, is to establish what the proposer of this model means by ‘language’. Here, Rancière/Olivier uses the words ambiguously because Chomsky’s theory of language has not been taken into account. On the one hand, they seem to be advocating that students should acquire the means to externalise thought on the specialised discourses of a learning programme (“replicating the situation of acquiring their [the students’s] first language”); but this idea is mixed up with the desired outcome that students should make sense of something on their own (“every human being is capable of ‘making sense’ of something by themselves”, i.e., an internal process, I-language). If there is indeed an innate meaning-making process that can produce the specialised discourses of educational curricula, then there would be no need for the existence of a formal pedagogy: the specialised discourses would be learned with facility, as it is with learning your mother tongue, which is acquired informally. We would then all be highly competent in the specialised discourses of the natural sciences, mathematics, social sciences, etc. From an educational point of view, all of us would literally be equal to one another, in the same way that all of us are equally competent at speaking our mother tongue. But this is clearly not the case: we all learn at different rates, and even find certain subject matter to be easier to understand than others; this is not the case with developing to speak complex sentences in one’s mother tongue, which happens with relative ease for all humans.

On the other hand, if what is intended with the proposed model is that students should learn the means of externalising thoughts on specialised discourse through the acquisition of specialised/technical language, then we should refer back to the point just made above, which is a question of how the understanding came about in the first place. No amount of mere hearing, repetition, comparison and imitating of technical terms will facilitate conceptual understanding. Something else is going on to produce that.

Besides the ambiguous notion of language employed in the proposed model of emancipatory pedagogics, the key function of the teacher as enabler of learning is severely underplayed. The importance of the teacher as enabler of learning is argued for in the work of Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet developmental psychologist of the early 20th century. Vygotsky argued that children can learn beyond their naturally achieved developmental level, but only through the assistance of someone more competent. A child, having picked up the phonics of the mother tongue, still needs assistance in order to string words together to form a question and to learn how the syntax of a question differs from the syntax that forms a statement. A student, for example, having achieved the basic ability to write, will still need assistance in order to learn how to write a persuasive essay or a scientific report; or, having acquired the basics of algebra, further assistance is needed to enable meaningful engagement with the differential calculus. The difference between the actual, realised ability, and the potential ability of the student is known as the zone of proximal development (ZPD) and it is bridged by the supportive, enabling intervention of the teacher. Left to themselves, it would be anyone’s guess about what children and students could end up ‘discovering’ and believe to be reliable knowledge.

The point above leads into the second problem: that of practicality. Sure, it might be possible that, given sufficient guidance, a student will eventually discover on their own, to some extent, the specialised knowledge of a particular field of study. But the amount of time and physical resources required for each individual to follow his own path is not practical or affordable for the majority of people (even if they were to engage in some form of home-schooling or distance learning). Trial and error would have to be an essential part of the process, but there is neither enough time in a standard curriculum nor enough physical resources to waste, to allow for it on a large scale.

And lastly, the ethical issue. If a teacher is to be consistent with the model that learning should proceed primarily through the independent discovery by the student, and not by transmissions from the knowledgeable teacher to the ignorant student, then the question about the choice of the object of study must be answered. Who gets to choose: the student or the teacher? Who sets the curriculum? It would be a hypocritical stance to claim to allow students the freedom to pursue learning in their own way, and yet, right at the outset, to deny them the freedom of choice about what it is they wish to learn. Yet, if one were to be ethically consistent with the model of emancipatory pedagogics, then this would result in a managerial nightmare in the classroom and in the educational system. Imagine each student being entirely free to choose whatsoever they wished to study, when they wanted to study it and how they want to study it. Maintaining an ethical position within this model is practically untenable. More importantly, it would actually have an adverse effect on the quality of educational outcomes because the benefits of the experience and more mature consciousness of educators in general would be excluded from the educational process. This is ethically reprehensible: it is akin to parents abdicating their responsibility to be leaders and exemplars because of a belief that such a relationship is oppressive. But providing leadership, guidance and structure is what parenting is all about: the child depends on the parent to do so. In the same way, a learner depends on the educator and the education system to provide educational leadership, guidance and structure. This is what facilitates development to maturity. In this sense then, unfortunately, someone – a master with respect to the student – must choose the curriculum. An ‘emancipatory approach’ to curriculum choice would be ethically unsound.

A way out of the problems raised above, while still aiming to achieve intellectual emancipation, is through enacting a critical pedagogy. A ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ as elaborated by Paulo Freire and other notable scholars in this intellectual tradition. Elaboration on this point would require the writing of another article.